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Horizon: Zero Dawn Review

Horizon: Zero Dawn (Available exclusively on PlayStation 4)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Action RPG
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Guerilla Games
Release Date: February 28, 2017

Parent Talk: Horizon: Zero Dawn has been rated T for teen from the ESRB because of alcohol and tobacco references, blood, mild language, mild sexual themes, and violence.  Horizon is a breathtaking action RPG where players take on the role of Aloy, a young outcast that hunts majestic mechanical beasts to stay alive outside the safety of the populous cities.  The mechanical animals she hunts do not bleed, however enemy tribes you go up against are made up of humans, and while attacking human enemies you can expect a certain level of violence.  The game is never tremendously gory, even though the violence is realistic.

Plays Like: Have you had the chance to play through 2013’s Tomb Raider or Rise of the Tomb Raider yet?  If so, those two games give the best impression of what you can expect from Horizon in terms of general gameplay.  Horizon is a gargantuan open world that is fully realized in a way very few open world games achieve.  There is a wealth of open world tropes such as unlocking towers, except here the towers are giant moving dinosaur-like creatures.  Side quests, vehicular combat, and more are all featured.  It’s the way that everything comes together that is truly impressive.

Review Basis: Sony Interactive Entertainment was kind enough to send us an advanced review code.  I put in well over 35 hours with the game and completed the main storyline.  I played through the game on a regular PlayStation 4.

Horizon: Zero Dawn has been in development since 2011.  Guerilla Games wanted to work on something different after the release of Killzone 3 on the PlayStation 3.  While it’s true the company would go on to release another Killzone on both the PS4 and the Vita, internally the team was secretly plugging away on what would become Horizon.  At E3 2015 the game was shown off to the public for the first time and I knew then that this was going to be a special game, and now having completed the game, I can proudly say it is indeed one special game that all PlayStation 4 owners should experience.

The Great:

There are have countless open world games released since Grand Theft Auto III hit the scene way back in 2001.  Some goofy, some serious, some kid-friendly, others not so much, and some come together in such a way that leave you speechless.  This one falls in the latter category.  It comes together in such a way that will truly take your breath away.  There have only been a few games where I stop and move the camera around because I am so in awe of what I’m looking at.  I’ve done that at least a dozen times while playing this game.  Aloy’s world is incredibly unique, and without spoiling anything, you will see mountain ranges that are so vividly detailed you won’t believe you’re not watching a cinematic.  The dynamic weather system will have it snow one minute, and pour rain another, but in a realistic manner where it doesn’t just rain for no reason.  You’ll see the clouds start to move in, the sky gets dark and then it starts to rain.  It’s amazing to see in action.  When it rains and you’re running through the dense forest areas, you can’t help but stand there in shock at the sheer beauty of it all.

Each area of the environment has been meticulously put together so that there’s a logical sequence to the placement of villages, mountains, desert areas, etc.  You don’t just see a mountain pop out of nowhere, you’ll slowly see the land incline and then as the elevation increases that’s when the weather starts to change and it gets cold.  It may seem trivial, but it’s this attention to detail that runs through every aspect of the game.

The storyline is one area I can’t speak much about, but it’s far more interesting than the trailers have led you to believe.  Aloy is an outcast, she doesn’t belong to a tribe.  Her guardian, Rost, used to belong to the Nora tribe many years back but something happened as he was cast out.  Typically, criminals are shunned this way, but in the case of Rost there’s much more to his backstory than meets the eye, much like everything in Horizon.  Eventually Aloy sets her eyes on an event that will allow her to become one with the tribe and learn more about where she comes from, who she is, and what her place is in this unique world.  What happens next changes the scope of the game and over the next thirty hours or so players will try and piece together exactly where these machines come from, why they were built, and just who are these ancients everyone keeps talking about.  It’s all fascinating stuff, and classic elements such as finding detailed information hidden away in the game’s world can be exposed if you’re willing to explore every nook and cranny.  Believe me, it’s worth it as the back story the game doesn’t tell you is just as, if not, more compelling than the one you’re taking part in.

The gameplay is excellent.  The game that most closely matches what Horizon does is the reboot of Tomb Raider, where you explore a massive open world, take on main storyline quests, side quests, and harvest resources to expand your arsenal and increase the number of items you can hold.  Fear not though, you don’t actively have to look for resources, they’re scattered everywhere.  You’ll see trees, plants, and animals all over the place that you can run up to, press triangle and harvest the resource.  Animals must be hunted, but you can see them with your Focus, which works something like Detective Mode in the Arkham games.  That means you don’t really have to put much effort into hunting or harvesting, which is good because it could have easily detracted from the rest of the game.

There will be certain animal resources you will need to find to upgrade your quiver for example.  When you hunt boars, turkeys, foxes, racoons, and fish they have a random number generator which dictates which resources the animal will drop.  Often you will need either the green uncommon or blue rare drops.  Because there are so many animals everywhere though, it never becomes a hindrance or burden and very early in the game you will be able to upgrade most of your gear at least once so long as you invest a good twenty to thirty minutes hunting.

The combat system and to a larger extension the weapons are incredibly fun and engaging.  For the most part you’ll be using your bow and arrows to hunt down the bulk of your adversaries.  From hunting wild animals, which require one arrow to take down, to taking on human and mechanical beasts alike, the combat is incredibly fun to partake in.  There are several elements to the combat depending on the situation at hand.  So, let’s break down each one.  Wild animals we already discussed, use your Focus to see where they are, highlight them with a quick press of the R2 button and take them out.

Human enemies are smarter and require some finesse to take down.  Once again you can use the Focus to see through walls, and plan your attack as you can mark enemies, but you can also see their walking pattern which is incredibly important for when you’re hunting the machines.  I typically stay far back, mark all the enemies and then take them out with precision arrows, one of many different types of arrows available to you.  Like everything else in the game, ammunition needs to be made from resources you find.  Absolutely everything in the game requires resources, but fear not, you can also buy goods from traders you meet along the way.  The form of currency is metal shards which everyone carries so when you defeat a human enemy and loot their corpse you’ll likely find some shards as well as potions and other items of use.  The one wrinkle to watch out for with human enemies is that they can bring in reinforcements if one of them reaches the strategically placed alarm signals.  A good tactic is to snipe all the enemies surrounding the alarm, then use stealth to deactivate the alarm and wipe out everywhere else however else you want.

Stealth is important because Aloy has a wild array of weapons as her disposal so she doesn’t just need to use the bow and arrows.  You can also use her trusty spear.  If she sneaks up on a person you can press the R1 button to activate a stealth kill, which is not only satisfying, but incredibly useful as no one hears the sounds, but they may see the body so be careful where you perform the takedown.  The world is covered in beautiful long flowing grass, which is just perfect for Aloy to use as cover, and this is important when taking on the mechanical beasts.  This is where the combat changes dramatically.

The wonderful creatures you’ve seen in all the trailers may look majestic, but when you must take one of them down, things get nasty.  Each type of machine needs to be handled differently, and this is an element I absolutely loved with the game.  The simple Watcher enemies can be defeated with a nice clear shot to their front lens, but before long you’ll be facing much stronger enemies that require multiple strategies to take down.  One enemy I fought was something like a giant worm that burrowed into the ground and popped up rather unexpectedly.  He ripped me to shreds the first time I faced him, but then I looked through my inventory to see what options I had available.  The first thing I did was I used the Focus to highlight any potential areas of weakness on the creature.  These areas become highlighted in yellow.  The thing is you can’t just shoot them and be done with it.  Sometimes these spots are protected and the creature needs to be immobilized first so you can target that specific area.  Some enemies are weak against one of the three elemental attacks in the game, fire, ice, and electricity.  Some are weak against a specific weapon you have, so you really must plan your attack before just jumping in and going crazy or you’ll be destroyed.

In the case of the worm fight, I decided to use my Ropecaster, which shoots a rope into an enemy and ties them to the ground, but wouldn’t you know it, he just burrowed underground so that didn’t work. I then tried to use the Sling to shoot frozen grenades at the creature to see if I could freeze him, which typically causes extra damage, and while it was working, I found it was taking too long, so I finally used my Tripcaster, which shoots out a trip-line with a small explosive attached to it, and boy did that work.  Every time the creature would lunge at me, I would have it setup up so he would trip the line and cause an explosion.  Shortly after, the creature who once destroyed me, was now dead.  Talk about a feeling of satisfaction.  Every time you stumble onto a new machine, you will do the exact same thing, try and find a good strategy to use against it.  The best news of all, your strategy could very well be completely different than mine, and that’s where the game shows its biggest strength.

As you complete more and more missions you’re awarded with experience, which slowly levels Aloy up over time.  Every time she gains a level she unlocks a skill point which can be allocated to a wide array of unique and helpful abilities.  You might be able to harvest more resources from a single source, reload your weapons faster, run while staying in stealth and much more.  Speaking of upgrades, your weapons and gear can be retrofitted with enhancements that cause extra damage, or give some other perk in battle.  The best thing to do is mess around and have fun with these unique elements as you never know what the results will be.

As you progress far enough in the game Aloy will eventually learn to hack creatures so they fight for her, she can learn to ride some as mounts, and so much more.  One of the more incredible aspects of these features is that they come together in a game with virtually no loading at all.  It’s an impressive sight to behold.  When you die there’s a short load time, and the same when you first boot the game but outside that there’s virtually no loading whatsoever.  The only exception to the rule is when you fast travel somewhere.  Even saving your progress can be done in about two seconds at campfires, either manually or automatically.  It’s impressive considering how incredible everything looks.

And oh, those looks.  I already mentioned I stopped to look around a dozen or so times, but really, I can’t stress this enough, this game looks incredible in motion.  It’s breathtaking how amazing everything came together.  If you thought last year’s Uncharted 4 looked amazing, wait until you see this.  Keep in mind I played the game on a regular PlayStation 4, so I can only imagine how much better it looks in 4K with HDR on the PlayStation 4 Pro.  I won’t get into the finer details, but Horizon is one of the nicest looking videogames I’ve ever played, period.

The sound design is also superb.  From excellent voice acting to a beautiful soundtrack, the audio came together in such a way as to compliment the visuals.  The audio is also dynamic meaning it will change based on the environmental situation, so not only battles, but whether the weather is really coming down hard, or if there’s something critical Aloy happened to figure out while she was on-mission.

The So-So:

There are a few elements that didn’t come together quite as well as Guerilla Games may have hoped for.  The first of these is the dialogue tree.  While it’s great being able to ask questions, and get more information out of NPCs, the choices you make feel as though they don’t really have any consequences.  The system works great from the perspective of information gathering, but there’s little to no weight behind some of the choices you make.

Another element that is ok, but nothing overly special is the mission variety, particularly if you take part in the side quests.  Too often Aloy must race off to a location, Focus on the area to find tracks and then follow those tracks to eventually fight either a mechanical beast or a bunch of humans.  This was offset by what I mentioned earlier though, that each new enemy encounter is unique in and of itself, and I suppose that was Guerilla’s argument for perhaps not having more mission diversity.

One area that cracked me up on more than one occasion was the acrobatics system.  Much like in the Uncharted series, Aloy can perform some rather impressive acrobatic feats, however these are always scripted.  She can only jump up to a specific spot if it happens to have a yellow border, if not she can’t.  It’s bizarre when there are areas she can’t reach that are shorter than the ones she can, all thanks to this mysterious yellow border.

Finally, the last elements of the game design that you must watch out for are with very specific resources not always available everywhere.  Under most circumstances, you will easily be able to craft whatever you want; however, ammunition is the one exception and that can force you to fast travel back to another area to harvest a few specific resources you’re missing so that you can continue with a mission that requires you to hunt down certain creatures.  This rarely happens, but when it does it can be slightly annoying.  Thankfully you can always buy what you’re missing from traders, however I like to save my shards for big upgrades and often the prices can be a bit steep for ammunition.

The Ugly:

Much like most open world games, I experienced a game breaking bug while playing the game, that Sony had to send me instructions on how to revert to a previous save point and avoid the bug.  If not for cloud saves I wouldn’t have been able to review this game for you as I was already 14 hours in and wouldn’t have had the time to restart from the very beginning.  The good news is this bug has been squished in the day 1 patch, but be warned that there will likely be other bugs present.

The Lowdown:

Horizon: Zero Dawn is an outstanding accomplishment from Guerilla Games.  While I had a few nitpicks with the game, overall it came together in such a way that few new IPs do.  It is also a technical achievement that will leave countless PlayStation 4 fans floored when they see it for the first time.  It comes with my absolute highest recommendation.  If you dislike open world games, give this one a chance as it may surprise you.  If you’re a longtime fan of the genre, this is a no-brainer.  Horizon: Zero Dawn is already a contender for Game of the Year.  Job well done Guerilla Games.

Final Score: 9.5/10      

Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection Review

Uncharted ReviewUncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection (Available exclusively on PlayStation 4)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Action
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Bluepoint Games
Release Date: October 7th, 2015

Parent Talk: The ESRB rates the Uncharted Collection T for teen because of blood, language, suggestive themes, use of tobacco, and violence. While there are certainly mature themes throughout the series, it’s not ultra-violent. Think of it like going to see a PG-13 action movie and you know more or less what to expect.

Plays Like: Let’s see here, there’s stealth, cover mechanics, gunplay, platforming, and puzzle solving to be had. The action takes place in third person, and personally I’ve called the Uncharted series the franchise that Tomb Raider should have been since the beginning. It’s kind of ironic that now the Tomb Raider series is a derivative of the Uncharted series, but that’s a topic for another day. This is as close as you will likely ever get to playing an Indiana Jones movie.

Review Basis: The Uncharted franchise is my favorite franchise established during the PlayStation 3 generation, so I know these games well. I played enough of each game in this collection to compare the remasters to their original counterparts and report back.

Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection is a remarkable collection of games. People tend to forget but the original Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune shipped back in 2007 from a developer mostly known for their mascot characters such as Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter. To see them branch out into a more realistic action adventure was shocking. Nathan Drake had to prove himself, and prove himself he did. Today the Uncharted series is the jewel in Sony’s first party developed crown. With the forth entry in the series gearing up for release early next year, having a set like this hit now is fitting. Not only does it remind us of how far the series has come, but also where things are going.

Uncharted2The Great:

The fact this collection exists gives me an excuse to go back and play through all three of these games back-to-back-to-back one more time before the next installment is released. I consider that the very best feature of the game, giving me one more chance to experience these absolutely incredible games.

Uncharted3The Good:

  • Evolving gameplay. The cover mechanics of the first game get better and better as the series evolved, and that’s highlighted in this collection. The gunplay also got tighter the further the series went. Regardless of the improvements made, the series was fun from the very beginning. The mix of action and puzzle solving, and phenomenal storytelling make this a series you will want to play through again and the gameplay evolves at a natural pace, meaning you don’t ever feel completely restricted.
  • The incredible action set pieces are just as memorable today as they were when you first played through these games. If you never experienced these games from the previous generation, then you’re in for a real treat. From the dilapidated train wreck in Uncharted 2 to the incredible desert in Uncharted 3, it’s just amazing to behold in 1080p.
  • The amazing story flows from one game to the next in such a way that you really have to play the games one after another in order to tie the themes together and get the most out of the trilogy. This marks the first time I’ve ever played the games one after another, and I enjoyed the story more now than I did when the games were new. The first game is by far the weakest of the bunch in terms of the narrative, but it sets the stage for things to come.
  • The advances in motion capture technology came a long way from Drake’s Fortune to Drake’s Deception, and so too did the Naughty Dog’s cinematography skills. I find it interesting how a game based so much on the past, has itself a little history lesson in technological advancements. Naughty Dog became more and more comfortable in their newfound skills as the games progressed, and that’s evident as you play through them.
  • The 1080p resolution and smooth 60 fps gameplay are the way these games were meant to be played. I actually had to connect my PS3 because I never remembered these games looking this good, but to my surprise they were quite impressive even on the PlayStation 3.

+The soundtrack is also just as incredible as I remembered. The game also supports 7.1 surround sound, and it sounds superb. These games have never sounded better than they do here. The voice acting is also a highlight.

  • New features and modes make these games better than ever. For beginners there’s a new super easy mode called Explorer Mode, and then there’s the Brutal difficulty which makes Crushing look like child’s play. There’s also a Speed Run mode which keeps track of your progression versus your friend’s times, which is nice. There’s even a photo mode, and all new trophies. Finally there’s a render mode, which unlocks new skins allowing you to play as some of your favorite characters from the series.

Uncharted5The So-So:

+/- One element this series has always struggled with is the disconnect between the protagonists that are so rich and lively, and the mass murdering they perform throughout the three adventures. These games are filled with deep storylines and complex characters that are emotionally charged, yet none of them have any problems killing thousands of people.

Uncharted4The Bad:

  • Sadly all multiplayer modes have not been carried over from the original games, which will surely disappoint some fans of the series.

Uncharted1The Lowdown:

Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection proves Drake’s motto is true, Sic Parvus Magna or, Greatness from small Beginnings. This set is an absolute must buy.

Final Score: 8.5/10

 

Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven Review

510932_frontLord of Magna: Maiden Heaven (Available exclusively on 3DS)
ESRB Rating: T
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Role Playing
Publisher: XSeed
Developer: Marvelous
Release Date: June 2nd, 2015

Hey everyone! My name is Cranberry; here with a guest review! Well, let’s get right to it!

Lord of Magna ReviewParent Talk: The Entertainment Software Rating Board has rated this game T for Teen, citing the following: Fantasy Violence, Mild Language, Partial Nudity, & Suggestive Themes. While it’s not excessive, there is some blatant “fan-service” in this game that involves some up-skirt pictures and some unnecessarily skimpy outfits. They aren’t kidding about the suggestive dialogue either; it definitely gets pretty suggestive at times. Of particular note, there is an animated bathing scene that you probably would not want to get caught watching at work.

The battles are not bloody or gory and are pretty tame, although some cut scenes imply some pretty harsh violence at times.

The teen rating seems to be appropriate for this one; I wouldn’t recommend this one for young children.

Plays Like:  This game plays like a cross between a turn based RPG, a strategy game, and a visual novel. The main emphasis of the game is definitely the plot and the interactions between the characters. It features a lot of cut scenes and dialogue reading, much of it voice acted.

Combat plays a part as well, and is played out in a strategic turn-based system. You field a party of up to four characters, each with different attributes and attack ranges. Combat takes place on a large field where you can see all of the enemy units. Both you and the enemies take turns moving and attacking, however the field is not a grid. Each character has a circle that appears around them, showing their move range for that turn. You can move freely anywhere within this circle provided there isn’t anything to block your path. When you’re ready to attack, you’ll see a red space that designates the area you can hit.

Lord of Magna1Lord of Magna also features an experience point leveling system as well as a crafting system, which adds some RPG elements into its strategy styled combat system.

The Good:

  • The presentation  is quite beautiful. The graphics have a cartoonish feel to them, which is pretty normal for a 3DS game, but they get the job done wonderfully. The 3D effects are not mind blowing, but they supplement the setting well without feeling too “busy” or disorienting. The characters are likable and full of personality. The story is also pretty well written and engaging. You take the role of an inn keeper, whom you can choose a name for. He runs an inn on the outskirts of town, and is patiently awaiting the day when his inn at long last receives a guest. The guests soon arrive in the form of characters that will join your party; seven in all over the course of the game. There is a reason this game is called “Maiden Heaven”, every playable character except for the main character is female. But each girl has a distinct personality and it is quite enjoyable to watch their stories unfold and see their character development over the course of the tale. These cut scenes are sometimes supplemented by some lovely artwork too.

Lord of Magna2+ There are also “heart events” you can access, which are essentially quests that dwell deeper into an individual girl and reveal more about her. There are 21 such heart events, and it will take several play-throughs to see them all; which fleshes out the story further and gives the game some replay value too.

  • The music is top-notch. The songs fit the context well and are pleasant to listen to. I received the original soundtrack with my purchase, and I frequently pop the CD in and listen to it. I really enjoy the music.
  • I also enjoy the combat system in this game. Each character has different roles they can contribute in a battle, and you need to think about how they can complement one another on the battle field. Some characters hit for a wide area in front of them, others hit an area at a distance, some hit an enemy multiple times, and others specialize in support skills. There are a lot of possibilities even before the battle begins. Once in combat, the strategy-game like field system allows for a lot of tactics that just wouldn’t work in a traditional turn-based RPG. You gain an action point each turn, and you spend this action point to perform your chosen action. There’s also an interesting “bowling” mechanic in battle, where enemies you hit can knock down and take out other enemies. If you manage to take down ten or more enemies with one attack, you get a free turn. It’s quite an interesting and creative mechanic.
  • If you choose not to take an action, you’ll keep your action point and when your next turn comes, you’ll have two action points. This allows you to save up points for special skills. This makes combat more complex and engaging than simple “hurt and heal”. You need to carefully consider how best to place your characters, and what action is best for the situation at hand. Do you send one character ahead as a decoy to try and form an opening for the rest of your party to slip through? Do you try and surround the enemy to limit their attack options? Do you fall back and regroup? All of these and more are decisions you’ll be making in battle, which makes for a very engaging battle system.
  • There’s also an elemental “Rock, Paper, Scissors” style vulnerabilities system that is similar to the typing system used in Pokémon. This further adds to the strategic combat decisions you make in battle.
  • An enjoyable story and an engaging well-designed battle system make for quite a good presentation.

The So-So:

+/- The story is both it’s strength and it’s weakness. While the story is engaging, it’s also very drawn out and you’re frequently watching long scenes in which you do nothing but hit the A button to advance through pages upon pages of text. This can be pretty frustrating if you are itching to get to the action, or if you don’t particularly care about the conversation the characters are having at the time. This is especially noticeable at the very start of the game where you read a huge amount of dialogue before you even gain access to your character. While there is a fast-forward feature, it doesn’t actually skip the cut scenes, but rather speeds through them much more quickly. Doing this does help speed things up, but there’s no “rewind” feature so if you accidentally skip ahead too far, you can’t go back to read what you missed.

The massive amounts of dialogue and the frequent lengthy cut-scenes often make this feel more like reading a book than playing a game; which can be a big put-off for a lot of people. Simply put, playing this game is going to involve reading a LOT of text.

Lord of Magna3+/- There is a crafting system, and while it adds some interesting customization options by allowing you to create skills for the characters, there’s little else you can make other than skills. There is also very little in-game clues as to what you can craft. You can at least see what the item your chosen ingredients will create before you make it, but there are no recipe books or listings of what can be made. No clues or hints from other characters as to what you should make. Unless you look up a guide online, it’s entirely trial and error based. The game really needs a recipe list.

+/- Sadly there’s no equipment to put on your characters. No new weapons, no new armor, no special accessories. Just skills, although some of the skills are passive skills that give you stat bonuses or special attributes, which is similar to what accessory-like items do in many other RPGs. But it still feels like a real missed opportunity to not include equip-able items in the game.

+/- There are a number of free missions, which allow you to field a team into battle in a variety of settings that you’ll unlock as you go through the story. These missions have some interesting flavor text, but that’s all it ends up being. It’s nothing but a battle against enemies that serves as a grinding or item farming opportunity. The good thing is that these free battles allow you to immediately enter a battle without having to wade through a mountain of text, but it’s disappointing for the missions to be given such interesting descriptions only to have nothing special happen in any of them.

The Bad:

As was already mentioned, the lengthy cut scenes can be pretty jarring, which depending on your tastes can be a real negative. But perhaps the biggest negative is the complete lack of exploration this game allows.

  • Except for a camp-site that you get to very briefly walk around in, the Inn is the only area you get to explore. Every other area, the only interaction you get with the environment is through battle. No exploring the territory, no searching for treasure, no searching for hidden secrets, no chatting with NPCs in town. There is a town in this game, and your visits to it are entirely scripted. For an RPG title, this is a glaring flaw. Nothing is more frustrating than setting foot on these beautiful maps, and not being able to explore them.
  • 99% of the battles mandate that you have the main character in them, even in free battles. This unnecessarily restricts your party selection, and can be frustrating when you start getting more characters available and want to experiment with a variety of character combinations. In a game that is already quite linear with no exploration, the last thing you want is even more limitations.

The Lowdown:

This is almost a love it or hate it game. The story is an engaging tale full of mystery, drama, and suspense.

Lord of Magna4There’s a fair amount of customization you can do with the character’s skills, and the combat system is magnificent but, the frequent extremely lengthy cut scenes, the lack of exploration, and the lack of equip-able items are pretty significant flaws that are quite noticeable and glaring during play.

If you’re looking for an engaging tale full of lovable characters, I recommend this game wholeheartedly. But if you’re looking for action and adventure, or your traditional RPG experience, this game won’t satisfy you.

That’s why my final rating for this game is a 7/10.

Until Dawn Review

Until Dawn Box ArtUntil Dawn (Available exclusively on the PlayStation 4)
ESRB Rating: M
Number of Players: 1
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Supermassive Games
Publisher: SCEA
Release Date: August 25th, 2015

Parent Talk: The ESRB rates Until Dawn M for mature players aged 17 and up because of blood and gore, intense violence, sexual themes, and strong language. Ever watch a movie franchise like Saw, well if so you know what to expect here. If you haven’t, this is a horror videogame where you see people get ripped apart, decapitated, and much more. Under no circumstances should children be anywhere near this game.

Plays Like: The best way I can describe Until Dawn is if someone were to take the episodic nature of Alan Wake and apply that to a horror-themed version of Heavy Rain. The game plays almost exactly like that mash up. For those that don’t know either or those games, you are largely interacting with a seven to nine hour movie. You can move one of eight characters around a limited environment, correctly hit the right buttons during quick-time events, and study various objects in the environment. This isn’t your typical third-person shooter, no here it’s all about immersing the player in a highly disturbing world. The big twist is that your choices literally affect everything in the game from the storyline to segments of the game you’ll actually play through.

Review Basis: Sony Computer Entertainment Canada sent us a review copy a week in advance, and I played non-stop until I had not only completed the game, but went through it several times to see how I could affect the storyline.

I really enjoyed the heavy narrative of Heavy Rain. It was a tremendously unique experience. It didn’t play like your typical third-person action game, instead making you interact with the environment in bold ways uncommon for the genre. Until Dawn is very similar in-style to Heavy Rain, but instead of trying to solve the riddle of the origami killer, here you’re wrapped up in a terrifying tale of murder, suspense and dread, where your every action changes not only the storyline, but the entire game. Until Dawn is the butterfly effect realized in videogame form, and it will absolutely blow you away.

Until Dawn1The Great:

The one element that really makes Until Dawn standout from its peers is its incredible use of the butterfly effect. In reality the butterfly effect amounts to the smallest choices we make could have dire consequences in the future. Step on a blade of grass and that could bring about the apocalypse sometime down the road. Until Dawn excels at this because during any given moment there are literally dozens of choices you will have to make. Do you get angry at one character for something they did or said? Do you take the left path instead of the right path? Do you ignore the quick-time event and see what happens, or do you try your hardest to keep up with the ever increasing prompts? Some of these choices may seem trivial, but their consequences can be felt as you progress through the game.

There’s an extremely helpful butterfly effect menu system where you can see how each choice you made affected the outcome of the game. On one wing you’ll see the initial choice you made, and then you can swipe to the right using the DualShock 4’s trackpad to see the next outcome. This is extremely useful to keep track of where branches were made, especially if you want to experience the game again by going down a different path.

I should also mention the choices you make are permanent. There are no checkpoints here, no do-overs. Once you’re make a decision you have to stick with it throughout the entire game. If that choice leads to a character dying, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. This means there’s no Game Over screen, and that allows you to get extremely experimental during your future play-throughs.

Until Dawn2The Good:

  • You will be afraid, count on it. The first six chapters of the game are genuinely scary. You have no idea what’s going on, you know there’s a presence out there, something that’s hunting your friends down, but you don’t know exactly what. There are countless jump scares where I almost dropped my controller out of fright, and then there’s the genuine dread that starts to creep in as you’re all alone making your way to some foreboding area. I can tell you I actually had my hands start to shake at one part because I really didn’t know what was going to happen next. The tension slowly eases off towards the end of the game as more and more is revealed about what’s actually going on, but let me tell you, the first half is absolutely petrifying. That’s not to say the latter half isn’t scary, it’s just that you start to acclimatize to the jump scares, and the game really wants to flesh out the story so you get the complete package.
  • Speaking of the story, it’s great. A very traumatic event occurred a year ago in a cabin in the woods on a mountain side. Now everyone who was present is back to pay their respects, but all is not what it seems and now each of the eight friends are systematically being taken out. What is going on? Who is doing this? Will anyone make it until dawn? There are quite a few horror tropes featured and many clichés, but what separates the game from your run-of-the-mill teen horror story are the deep and fleshed out characters. By the end of the game you will absolutely hate some of them, and feel true pain when you let others die because of your poor decisions that led to them being massacred.
  • Core gameplay works perfectly. This is the one area that won’t be for everyone. Gameplay is broken down into several sections, each specifically designed to draw you further into the narrative. There are areas where you play in third-person, usually at times where you have to explore dark and scary places, then there are decision bubbles where you have to move the right analog stick to select one of two decisions, which will completely change the course of the game. There are also quick-time events that play out during key cinematic scenes, and finally there are targeting sections where you have to aim a reticle at a target very quickly or something awful usually happens.

Until Dawn3+ A surprising amount of replay is featured. There are quite a few collectable goodies you should be on the lookout for as these flesh out the storyline, and some can only be found in sections of the game that are unlocked by making certain choices. You can also go back and create new branches in the storyline that affect relationships between characters by changing the choices you make in each chapter. So while the game consists of only 10 chapters which last for at most around seven to nine hours, you could be playing for much longer if you decide you want to experiment with all the different story branches.

  • Fantastic cast of characters. Like Beyond Two Souls, Until Dawn features Hollywood actors such as Hayden Panettiere), Peter Stormare, Brett Dalton, Rami Malek, Meaghan Martin, Nichole Bloom, Galadriel Stineman, Noah Fleiss and Larry Fessenden. Each actor does a superb job of capturing the essence of the characters they play.
  • The audio visual presentation as a whole is absolutely incredible. From the dynamic camera angles that heighten the tension and suspense, to the sublime particle effects used to highlight snow and fog, it’s just a stunning game to look at and admire. Because of the limited interactivity, Supermassive Games were able to push the PS4 to its limits by creating breathtaking environments and one wonderful setting after another. This very well could be the nicest looking game of this current generation thus far.

Until Dawn4The Bad:

  • For someone like me, not having the option to use inverted aiming controls really hurts, and there’s one scene in particular where the only way to save a character is to very quickly aim at a specific spot, and because I’m so used to inverted controls my brain told my thumb to move the stick down, instead of up, thereby causing the character to die. That was very annoying to me as I was so close to saving him. I can only hope this gets patched into the game ASAP if it isn’t a day-one update.

Until Dawn5The Ugly:

I have to mention this because it occurred once, yet never again. During my very first gameplay session with the game I went through eight of the game’s 10 chapters, and since there’s no exit to main menu option I quit the game from the dashboard using the ‘Close Application’ command. When I tried to resume my game I got the following message: “Recovering partially installed data. This may take up to twenty minutes.” It took about seven minutes for the file to get recovered and then I was back where I left off, but it was odd just the same.

The Lowdown:      

Until Dawn truly surprised me as I had no expectations for it. I remember it being announced for the PlayStation 3 as a Move game (thankfully that decision was scrapped and the game now features either motion controls or traditional controls), but it really flew under my radar. So imagine my surprise when the game arrives and it absolutely blows me away. If you enjoy a good scare, close the lights, raise the volume on the TV and prepare yourself for one hell of a good time. Until Dawn might just be the very best PlayStation 4 exclusive of 2015. Don’t miss it!

Final Score: 9.2/10

 

Pokémon Y Wonderlocke!! – Ep 1 “New Beginnings”

Steven begins a brand new series, almost like a Let’s Play where he attempts to play through Pokemon Y using the Wonderlocke Rules.  I’ve included a list of the rules below the video.

Wonderlocke Rules:

1- When a Pokémon faints, it is considered “dead” and cannot be used anymore. It has to be either released or stored in a specified PC Box titled “Cemetery”.

2- You can only capture the first Pokémon you find in every new area and nothing else. If it faints of flees, there are no second chances.

3- The captured Pokémon must be Wondertraded and cannot be used in battle. You can however use the Pokémon obtained from Wonder Trade.

4- If a Pokémon obtained from Wonder Trade is too overpowered or over-leveled, you have 1 of 2 choices. Store it and keep it for later or Wonder Trade it again until a more suitable Pokémon is obtained. This is a one time decision and cannot be reversed.

5- If you receive the same species of Pokémon twice, you may Wonder Trade it again until you get a Pokémon not previously obtained.

6- You must give a nickname to all of the Pokémon you catch, for the sake of forming stronger emotional bonds.

E3 2014 Press Conference Impressions

Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo all held press conferences in LA…well ok Nintendo held a digital event, but whatever.  The point is that tons of new games were revealed, and we now have a much better idea what to expect from the next 12 months for each of the big three console manufacturers.  Here are my reactions to the press events.

Microsoft Press Conference:

Sony Press Conference:

Nintendo Digital Event:

What are your thoughts on the big three?

Gamecube Memories: Pokemon XD Gale of Darkness Review

Pokemon X & Y might have been the first real 3D adventures we craved and deserved for over a decade, but they were not the first time a Pokemon RPG went into the third dimension. Pokemon Colosseum can indeed claim that title but I’ve never had the chance to play it. Instead, I recently completed its sequel ‘Gale of Darkness’, also on the Gamecube. From what I’ve gathered, XD made plenty of improvements over the formula introduced in Colosseum. For starters, just like the portable gems, you can save and continue your game at any given time. You can also tell right away from the start of the battle if there’s a shadow Pokemon present, and purifying them is now a lot more simple. I’ll talk a bit more about that later but since I have not played Colosseum, I’m gonna judge Pokemon XD: Gale of Darkness as if it was an original title.

The first thing you’ll notice is that the entirety of the game is played via double battles. That’s pretty freaking cool actually and makes the experience different and unique since double battles were first introduced in Generation 3 (Ruby/Saphire/Emerald) and have since been nothing more then an afterthought in the main games. While the AI doesn’t use the intense strategies you can find in the VGC nationals, they can still surprise you from time to time with a basic protect/earthquake combo.

You start the game with an Eevee and are quickly given the option of evolving it into a Flareon, Jolteon, Vaporeon, Umbreon or Espeon. I chose Espeon and in my opinion, it made the game a lot more easy then it would have been with the other starters. There are so many types weak to psychic attacks that my Espeon really put in some work and made most of the game a breeze. It also carries Bite which can knock off Psychic and Ghost types and can learn Shadow Ball later on for even more coverage. Still, this is a pretty kick ass starter.

The shadow Pokemon mechanic is pretty interesting. Team Cypher is an evil organisation who wants to turn Pokemon into fighting machines. Your goal is to steal every shadow Pokemon you see with the intent of restoring them to their true form. You do that by lowering their hp during a battle and using a pokeball after, just like you would with a wild pokemon. The difference is that this actually occurs during a fight with another trainer. We’ve been told since the original Red & Blue that we couldn’t capture other trainer’s Pokemon. It feels bad ass to be able to do so in this game.

Shadow Pokemon are limited in their abilities. They remain with the same type weaknesses, but they only carry shadow moves. These moves are super effective against every non-shadow Pokemon. They can’t level up until they’re purified so there’s not much reason to carry a shadow Pokemon around unless you want to purify him. You can do so in various ways and the game does a pretty good job of explaining the process to you.

The storyline was pretty entertaining for a Pokemon adventure. The characters, especially the villains, were all colorful and interesting. It’s a kids game however so don’t expect anything close to a triple A adventure ala Shadow Hearts. Unfortunately, since this doesn’t have the same metagame you’d experience in the core Pokemon titles, the plot won’t be enough for most. All you do in XD is battle other trainers. There’s no incentive to raise your Pokemon since you can’t bring them online after to battle your friends. Because of all that, I found the game to drag on by the twelve hour mark. Since this is a 15 to 20 hour RPG, Gale of Darkness could prove extremely repetitive and tedious for the average gamer.

Still, for my money, any Pokemon fan should try to experience Pokemon XD: Gale of Darkness at least once. It’s nowhere near the top when it comes to role playing games of the Gamecube/Xbox/PS2/Dreamcast generation but it’s nowhere near the bottom either. This is simply a solid videogame that Pokemon fans will eat up while other gamers could find some enjoyment out of. I can only hope that Nintendo has plans to create a full 3D Pokemon game similar to this for the Wii U in the near future.

Pokemon Pearl & Diamond Review

pearlPokémon Diamond & Pearl (Available exclusively on Nintendo DS)
ESRB Rating: E
Number of Players: 1 to 2
Genre: RPG
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Game Freak
Release Date: April 22nd, 2007

The 4th generation of Pokémon games are my personal black sheep. They contain the only Pokémon games in the main series that I had never completed in the Pearl/Diamond/Platinum and HeartGold/SoulSilver versions. For one reason or another, I wasn’t in the mood for Pokémon gaming back then. I did buy Pearl when it came out and before I restarted a file, I had 10 hours invested into it so it’s not like I never gave it a chance. I’ve been watching a tremendous amount of ‘Let’s Play’ videos and documentaries on the history of the series lately and it’s gotten me in the mood for some more Pokémon. I thought there was no better excuse to go back and finally complete the last main entry in my favorite video game franchise, and so I did. Here’s my verdict.

The Great:

My god has Pokémon changed over the years…. and for the most part, the better. But there’s one complaint that always comes up when I talk about recent entries and that’s the difficulty level. Pokémon Pearl was the most challenging Pokémon game I’ve played since the original Red and Blue. Like any RPG out there, you can make it as easy as you want by grinding indefinitely, and if you choose that route, you’ll likely think I’m crazy, but I chose the complete opposite. I went from point A to B from start to finish without any grinding whatsoever. Once I had captured my team, I used repels during most of the adventure to accelerate things even more. And sure, that would make any game harder than it is, but you got to understand that I’m no beginner when it comes to Pokémon so I already have an advantage that most wouldn’t.

What truly makes the game challenging is the following factors. Leveling up takes a lot of time. Even defeating Pokémon five levels above yours doesn’t gain you that much experience. Another extremely important aspect of Pearl & Diamond is the fact that you’re going to face diverse teams. While most trainers will sport the series tradition of only having one type, most will surprise you by having two or more types in their party. And I’m talking about gym leaders and Elite 4 members here, you can’t just start with a water type and spawn Surf and expect an easy victory. Finally, Elite 4 members challenge you with five Pokémon each while the champion has six. Not only that, but these pocket monsters will be five to ten levels higher than your top Pokémon on your team. This forced me to finally cave in and evolve my Pikachu just before the final fight with the champion. Ash would be disappointed in me.

02The Good:

+ The very best batch of starters I’ve seen. While Infernape is kick ass, Fire/Fighting is not uncommon. After-all, Blaziken from Ruby & Sapphire sported that very same dual type, but then it gets pretty interesting. Not only is Empoleon’s design bad ass, but he might also be the only water/steel mixture in the entire game. Finally, you have Torterra who seems to have a freaking forest on his back with spikes thrown in for good measure. Being Grass/Ground doesn’t hurt either. We haven’t seen such unique starters before, or since.

+ I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the over-abundance of HM moves in Pearl/Diamond. For me it added to the challenge and made things more interesting. It also forces you to take mental notes of areas you’ll have to come back and visit later on.

+ Super visuals and audio presentation for the time. This game looks pretty nice on a DSi and the songs are some of the best I’ve heard in the series so far.

+ Post game content is excellent. Battle Tower is back from Pokémon Crystal, and there’s also tons of legendaries to catch after you’ve dealt with the Elite 4 including the odd, but fan favorite Regigigas.

+ All your Pokémon can be transferred all the way to Pokémon X & Y if you’d like too.

01The So-So:

+/- While you may no longer use the Nintendo DS Wi-Fi Connection to battle in the 4th and 5th gen games, this is where Pokémon finally made its online debut. It was a bit underwhelming to say the least with bare-bone features and connection issues all over the place. Still, this was a huge step for the franchise back in the day and one that has made Pokémon a stand out in the e-sport industry thanks to Pokémon X & Y.

03The Bad:

– Probably the worst storyline in the franchise after X & Y. It’s practically non-existent, and when you do get a truly epic moment in your final standoff with Team Galactic, it’s ruined when you face the leader of the gang, a truly evil guy, and realize you only have four Pokémon to worry about during the battle.

– For some reason, it takes forever for the health bar to lower during battles. Surfing on water is also extremely slow. I heard that these were all fixed with the Platinum version, but they’re indeed annoying.

04The Lowdown:

Never underestimate Pokémon is the feeling I’ve come back with after having completed Pearl for the first time. This is a series I’ve cherished since Red & Blue and every single entry in the series has been rock solid. While I’m not sure where it would rank in my personal favorites, it’s still a game I’d recommend any day to any portable gamer. Like the franchise itself, Pokémon Pearl might not be perfect, but it’s damn enjoyable. Fun from start to finish, you can’t go wrong with Pearl/Diamond. If like me, you’ve never experienced the DS classics, you might want to reconsider.

Final Score: 9.0/10

Interview with Next Level Games’ Audio Director, Chad York

I’ve always been a huge admirer of Next Level Games and the minds behind their games, particularly from the music point of view. Mario Strikers: Charged hit the scene a few years ago, and its music went by unrecognized. I honestly think it has one of the most underrated soundtracks of all time. Thankfully, I managed to get in contact with the man behind the music of that game and a few other Nintendo flagships, Chad York. I’m thankful that he lent his time for me to interview him through Skype. It was more of a conversation really, an insightful one at that. For my first interview ever, it turned out rather well. Hope you enjoy!